Hollis Thomas: Panthers' run-stuffing jokester
Hollis Thomas walked into the Carolina locker room Wednesday and sneaked up from behind on an unsuspecting group. "Hey!" Thomas yelled, causing two reporters to jump and another to flinch. "How are things going!" Thomas then let out a hearty laugh and walked to his locker, where a SpongeBob SquarePants backpack sat on the shelf. A self-proclaimed "happy-go-lucky fat kid," the Panthers' newest starting nose tackle has brought girth and a lighthearted personality to a club in desperate need of both. "He's a funny dude," fullback Brad Hoover said. "I like Hollis a lot. He's so jolly all the time." The 35-year-old Thomas was signed on Oct. 1, a day after he was released by St. Louis. The 14-year veteran was the latest in a revolving door of nose tackles to pass through since top run-stuffer Maake Kemoeatu ruptured his Achilles' tendon on the first day of training camp. Marlon Favorite, Ra'Shon Harris, Nick Hayden and Louis Leonard either got hurt, weren't big enough or didn't work out. The Panthers entered Sunday's game against Washington - Thomas' debut - winless and allowing a league-worst 182.7 yards rushing per game. Then the portly, 6-foot Thomas, who the Panthers claim weighs only 340 pounds, effectively took on the double teams the position requires. He clogged the middle of the line, and the Redskins managed only 74 yards rushing as Carolina rallied for a 20-17 win. "It was kind of a perfect fit so to speak," Thomas said of coming to Carolina. "I was talking to them a year ago to the date and nobody knew that this was going to come about. Nobody knew all of the big guys would get hurt and the Rams were going to release me. Everything happens for a reason." Now the Panthers hope Thomas can last the rest of the season at nose tackle and help Carolina rebound from an awful start. Bringing a smile to his teammates in the locker room, film room and team plane won't hurt, either. "Um, this is a game. I always thought when you are playing a game you're supposed to have fun and enjoy what you're doing," Thomas said. "Sometimes you can have fun with looking at mistakes and stuff and making light of stuff. You might have gotten dumped on a play or rolled up on. It's not going to be the first time and it won't be the last." Thomas' attitude worked as he made a difficult jump to the NFL. He went undrafted out of Northern Illinois, but not only made the Philadelphia Eagles as a rookie, he became a full-time starter his second year. He overcame a torn biceps and triceps, a broken foot, a dislocated elbow and a four-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance to be a serviceable defensive tackle with the Eagles and New Orleans Saints. He went to St. Louis in the offseason, but Thomas knows his physical limitations, and running around trying to play the so-called 3-technique defensive tackle spot was too much for him at this stage of his career. Thomas played only on short yardage situations and was released when the struggling Rams decided to focus on younger players. It took only hours for coach John Fox and the Panthers to call. "Every once in a while, you get double-teamed in there and I think that size is a real advantage," Fox said. "We call it the 600-pound block. That's what you're getting two 300-pound (offensive) linemen coming off on you. He's got the experience, technique and size to do it." But Thomas provides more than a hefty on-field presence. His personality helped a team feeling loads of pressure after its 0-3 start. For a guy who once wore SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas in public, he's an irreverent addition that's lightened the atmosphere. "He just brings that vibe to the team as far as having fun," defensive end Everette Brown said. "And he makes a fashion statement with SpongeBob." NOTES: RB Jonathan Stewart (Achilles' tendon) had his usual Wednesday practice off. ... LB Jon Beason (knee), LB Na'il Diggs (rib), CB Captain Munnerlyn (shoulder), DT Nick Hayden (toe) and LB James Anderson (concussion) were limited. ... P Jason Baker, who averaged 44.8 yards on 4 punts Sunday, was voted NFC special teams player of the week. "Must have been a light week," Baker said. ... Practice included steady, sideways rain and a temperature dropping into the high 40s. "I thought our players' focus was really good," Fox said. "We can get some rain in Tampa, but I think it was a hard sell to convince them that it could be 45."